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Florida Poly students identify new way to create oxygen in space

Take a break from politics to geek out about space travel for a moment.

Florida Polytechnic University researchers are working on a breakthrough technology that could simplify the way oxygen is created for such travel.

Student researchers and faculty are exploring ways to use algae to capture carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. The technology would simplify the current process and make it less costly.

The NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium-funded research uses diatoms — a form of algae invisible to the naked eye — to increase efficiency in solar cells to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide.

Currently astronauts use separate systems: One to capture the carbon and the other to produce oxygen.  

“This research not only could lead to more energy efficient space missions through solar cell and capacitor enhancements, but it could also play a critical role in revolutionizing the way the very air astronauts breathe is rendered carbon dioxide-free,” said professor of biology Melba Horton, who received the FSGC grant.

Diatoms’ silica walls give the algae unique photosynthetic properties that make them useful in numerous high-tech applications.

Florida Poly Juniors Geoffrey Doback and Christopher Scaduto built a gas cell to measure findings in the research involving the diatoms absorbing carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. The two young researchers measure their findings by connecting to a spectrometer inn one of the school’s Innovation, Science and Technology labs.

The students 3-D printed the small gas cell.

“It’s definitely encouraging how we’re not chemical engineers or biologists, but we were able to get that different perspective and apply our mechanical engineering background to improve different things we had nothing to do with originally,” Doback said.

The chemistry involved in the process came from Andres Regaldo, a junior at the school. He researched the effect of electrical efficiency of solar cells exposed to diatoms and found it did increase.

“There’s a lot of math and science that goes behind applying diatoms and increasing solar cell efficiency,” Regalado said. “Apart from diatoms, there’s coating and layering that goes into making a solar cell more efficient.”

Research will continue into the spring. The time frame was expanded after students’ initial success with the carbon dioxide capture system.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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